Catholic Activity: Why Forty Days?
The time period of the Lenten season is 40 days. We find Old and New Testament examples for this time frame of prayer and fasting.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is actually forty-six days before Easter. We say that Lent is forty days in number because the six Sundays are excluded from the rigors of Lent in order to afford the faithful a time to pause and rejuvenate, gathering new strength. Since the restructuring of the Liturgical Year after Vatican II, the Easter Triduum, which begins on Holy Thursday, is not included in the Lenten season, so the actual days of rigorous Lenten observance are approximately forty days.
The number forty is found frequently in scripture to signify either a time of penitential preparation, or a time of punishment and affliction sent from God. The Old Testament is replete with examples of the use of forty: God punished mankind by sending a flood over the earth that lasted forty days and forty nights (Gen 7:12); the people of Ninevah repented with forty days of fasting when Jonah preached the destruction of Ninevah (Jonah 3:4); Moses and the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years (Num 14:34); the Prophet Ezekiel had to lie on his right side for forty days as a figure of the siege that was to bring Jerusalem to destruction (Ez 4:6); the Prophet Elijah fasted and prayed on Mount Horeb for forty days (1 Kings 19:8); and finally, Moses fasted forty days and forty nights while on Mt. Sinai (Ex 34:28).
In the New Testament we find Our Lord fasting and praying for forty days and forty nights in the desert in preparation for the public ministry that would end in his redeeming death (Luke 5:35). He is the new Adam who overcomes the temptations of the devil and remains faithful to God; the new Israel, who reveals himself as God’s Servant by his total obedience to the divine will, in contrast to those who provoked God in the desert. The Church sets aside the forty days of Lent in order that we might imitate Our Lord by our fasting, prayer, self-denial and good works, and thereby prepare our hearts for an Easter renewal. “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (Catholic Catechism, #540).
Activity Source: Original Text (JGM & MG) by Jennifer Gregory Miller and Margaret Gregory